Olvia Haggipavlu stopped to take in the huge concrete vats at Etko, the Cypriot winery her family founded in 1844. “These tanks used to fill ships that would carry bulk wine all over the world, to Sudan to Russia and to Sierra Leone.”
Etko is Cyprus’ oldest winery and, along with three other producers, until 20 years ago dominated the Cypriot wine sector. The “big four,” — Etko, Geo, Sodap and Loel – as they were, and are still, known produced tens of millions of liters of wine that were sold in bulk to the world, though mainly to the former Soviet Union.
The vats are now empty and bulk wine is no longer the mainstay of the Cypriot winemakers. The collapse of the USSR, a decline in Cypriot grape growing culture, a severe drop in the annual rainfall — there was none in the 2008 season — and huge demand from thirsty tourists, mainly British and Russian holidaymakers, and the emergence of over 50 small producers making modern wines, have all contributed to a revolution in Cypriot wine in the last two decades. The result has been a dramatic increase in the quality, presentation and range of wines.
Meanwhile, Cypriot producers are recognizing that they must emphasize making wines using indigenous grapes, such as the red Maratheftiko and the white Xynisteri, if they want to succeed in what is a cutthroat international market. If all goes according to plan, Cyprus threatens to be the next boutique destination for wine lovers seeking something different from the run-of-the-mill Chardonnay and Syrah that, while hugely popular on a global scale, have created a sense of ennui among discerning tipplers. In fact, October saw Cypriot winemakers attempt to make inroads into the Lebanese market, one that has seen a noticeable rise in the popularity of wine. On October 10, Etko and the Fikardos Wineries held a seminar in Beirut for the Lebanese hospitality sector. More tastings are scheduled to be held around the country, but it remains to be seen how much of an impact, they will have on what is a market still in its infancy.
That does not mean that Cypriot wines will be alien to the regular drinker. All the recognizable ‘international’ varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Chardonnay, Muscat and Semillon and the like — are grown on the island. The trick is how to use them to their maximum commercial potential while still striving to create a Cypriot identity.
At the moment Etko produces over 3 million bottles and carries nearly 30 wines. It may seen excessive for such a modest (by global standards) production level but it typifies the dilemma faced by the Cypriot producers “We are selling to three defined sectors,” explained Haggipavlu. “The local consumers are still in awe of the international grapes, so we have to make wines for them. Then we have the Russians and British who will drink anything if the price is right so we make wines that target this niche, and then we have our international customers who want wines made with indigenous grapes and who don’t want to hear about Chardonnay and Merlot from Cyprus.”
Wine is gaining popularity among young Cypriot drinkers too. “Wine is fashionable among the young, whereas before they preferred whisky, brandy or the local Zivinia,” said Yiannis Kyriakides, who, with his brother, owns the Vasilikon Winery in Pathos. Kyriakides is putting his money where his mouth is and investing millions in new premises that will house the winery, cellars, F&B area and company offices. Established in 1993 and now producing around 350,000 bottles per year, Vasilikon is among the bigger of the new generation producers, but unlike many who produce less than half of his output but have over a dozen labels, he only makes three wines: two reds and a white. “We know our market and we know what our customers want,” said Kyriakides as yet another car with the back seats down pulled up outside the winery. “Got any white left?” enquires the young Englishman eagerly.
In nearby Panayia, Andreas Kyriakides, owner of the Vouni Panayia winery, is also investing millions in a new state of the art winery, wine tourism and conference center. It is in essence a one-stop shop for the wine tourist. Founded 21 years ago, the winery and Kyriakides are considered pioneers in the new Cypriot industry. “We have come a long way since the mid-80s, when the emphasis was on bulk wines and there was little or no competition.”
A huge history
For the record, Cyprus has been making wines for about 6,000 years and lays claim to being among the oldest wine producers and exporters. Its most famous wine is Commandaria, a sweet white made from Mavro and Xinisteri grapes, which has been made in Cyprus since 800BC and which today can only be made in the 14 villages in the Trodos Mountain region. Even though it is essentially a liqueur, many producers see Commandaria as the wine that can take Cyprus into the modern international market. “It is the first wine of Christianity,” said one local winemaker proudly.
Today, Cyprus produces some 15 million bottles (although it is impossible to get an accurate figure) each year, 95% of which are sold on the local market that boasts consumption of 26 liters per capita per annum (compare this to 1 liter per capita per annum in Lebanon). So why the need to export? The island’s admission into the EU in 2004 saw a drop in tariffs and a quick browse of the shelves in any major Cypriot supermarket will reveal that foreign wine producers with greater volume can undercut homemade wines. If Cyprus wines are to be profitable they need to wow the foreign drinker.
The Keo winery is one of the big four that has had to adapt to this new order. The winery, the biggest Cypriot producer, used to be located in Limassol but this proved too far from the vineyards to make serious wines. The grapes that would arrive from the vineyards in the mountains in the screaming heat would have already started to ferment in the lorry.
“We moved here after we realized the days of bulk wines were over,” said George Metochis, Keo’s winemaker, speaking from its current winery set in the Trodos Mountains, where the company has invested around $5 million in making sure it is a competitive player in the new, more diverse wine sector. “We have to fight for our identity. We have to fight for the uniqueness of Commandaria and we have to make people pay for the privilege of drinking wine made from Cypriot grapes, especially the Maratheftiko.”
A grape with promise
Mara-what? The Maratheftiko stands on the cusp of international greatness, provided enough of it can be harvested and vinified. It is Cyprus’ prized red grape. It is difficult to grow and work with but with some love and care the results in the bottle are magnificent. Only 146 tons of Maratheftiko were harvested this year, less then the 184 tons picked in 2007 and the 208 tons picked in 2006. Nonetheless, Cypriot producers are convinced that this grape can take Cyprus to a wine world starved for a new grape with a new flavor and a new identity.
Others are placing their money on the more common but equally illustrious Lefkada, which is less of a headache to work with. “The Maratheftiko is a great grape but it is difficult to handle and is very temperamental. My money is on the Lefkada,” said Tim Whitrow, an Australian winemaker working at the Zambartas Winery.
And if that weren’t enough it is not the easiest of words to market. “Maratheftiko is not easy to pronounce if you are not a Greek speaker and this may be a problem for foreigners,” admitted Michael Constandinides, owner of the Ezouza Winery in the hills above Pathos.
Use what you have
“The OIV has always told to insist on being different to use what we have. In the 80s we didn’t know about the possibilities,” explained Akis Zambartas, whose Zambartas Winery, also in the Trodos Mountains is making wines that blend local and international varieties. Zambartas, who is the former boss of Keo, believes that wines with international and local grapes — such as his three reds that blend Maratheftiko with Syrah, Levkada with Syrah, Levkada with Cabernet Franc and a white that pairs Xinisteri with Semillon — offer the best formula for any export drive. “The consumer knows he is getting something different but he feels safe knowing that there is also a grape he knows.”
It is a view that is echoed by Costas Tsiakkas owner of the Tsiakkas Winery. “You can give personality to the wine but you must also listen to the market. We don’t have the resources [like the Australians] to make cheap Cabernet Sauvignon and we don’t have the experience [like the French] to make expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, so we’ve got to play to our strengths.”
Understanding the consumer tastes is also crucial. “Gone are the days when it was okay to make heavily oaked wines, big wines which need years to age,” said Nicos Nicolides, owner of Domaine Nicolides. “They want something to drink now.”
If only getting the right blend was the only challenge. Rain and a declining rural economy also threaten to thwart any progress. “By and large, the vineyards are not owned by the wineries so the wine producer has to rely on the judgment of the local grape grower for the quality,” said Tsiakkas. “There is no sense of partnership and this affects quality. Furthermore, there is no youth left to carry on the tradition so we need to make planting vineyards a priority. There is no one left in the villages; we have a human resources problem.”
Christakis Lambouris of the Lambouri Winery gets around this problem by buying half of his grapes from members of his extended family who own vineyards. He acknowledged he is lucky and to acquire the other half he has had to take on land owned by grape growers who have basically given up. “They get subsidies from the government of between 160 and 180 euros per 1,000 square meters,” he explained. “In reality, they take the money and we take on the land.”
Then there is the water issue. “Add to this is the fact that we have no rain, so we have to ask ourselves where will the best place for these vineyards? At high altitude or low altitude? Should they face north? All this needs to be studied if we are to move forward,” explained Tsiakkas, who also sounded a note of optimism. “These changes might force our hand in the kind of direction we need to go in especially if we find out that native varieties are better suited to our soil and need less water.”
The challenges have not stopped enterprising producers like Lambouris from finding foreign customers. Not only are his wines served in Lufthansa’s business class but he even makes a kosher wine (wine made under strict rabbinical supervision during all stages of production) for the Israeli market. “They wanted at least one Cypriot wine as a tribute to their biblical tradition,” explains Lambouris.
So what of the future? Zambartas, like almost all the local producers, knows he is being squeezed by international competition and needs to play to his strengths. “I see a sector with lots of boutique wineries producing less than 100,000 each. This number is easy to control in a country like Cyprus where the structure of landowning is small. People are drinking less but they are drinking better quality. We have 60,000 British living on the island and they are very demanding.”
Back at the Etko Winery, Olvia Haggipavlu entered the vast warehouse where the huge wooden vats of Kamandaria are stored. “I am proud to be carrying on this tradition,” she said staring up at the huge casks. “It’s a shame to waste so much history.”